August 20th, 2006

A Month in the Field with the IBM X41 Tablet PC

Carol and I are still in the Chicago area, and I've been here just about a month now, with no computing but my IBM/Lenovo Thinkpad X41 Tablet PC. (I also have the associated dock, which contains the optical drive.) I've had abundant opportunity to use the machine on a daily basis and got good at it, and I think at this point I am in a position to provide a reasonable critique.

First of all, as a Tablet PC I have no particular complaints. It makes a superfine e-book reader, and I've been astonished at how easily I've been able to curl up with longish ebooks and not surface an hour later feeling like somebody kicked sand in my eyes. That was a complete surprise, and probably the best single thing about the unit, especially with its implementation of the MS Reader.

I haven't used Ink all that much, and given that I don't use cursive handwriting in my daily life, I don't feel like learning it again just to use it on a single computer. I had a lot of trouble getting the recognizer to get unusual words right, especially my own name. (As far as the X41 is concerned, it's owned by Jeff Dustman.) I would have pursued that issue further, but again, I don't expect to use the feature a lot and didn't break a sweat fooling with it.

Most of my complaints are not obviously related to the Tablet hardware and support software, though I have a suspicion that XP Tablet Edition may be behind some of them. Here's a list:

  • Sometimes the task bar just vanishes and won't come back. I haven't been able to identify a consistent trigger for its vanishing. I have to reboot to restore it.
  • It's rarely good for more than two days before it needs a reboot. It gets very slow after awhile, and eventually becomes too slow to use. I've gotten in the habit of turning it off each night, but Windows 2000 can go lots longer without a reboot.
  • The X41 runs at 1.5 GHz, and has 512MB of RAM, However, it's no faster, and often slower, than my 2001-vintage 750 MHz 128 MB Thinkpad X21 running Win2K.
  • Something in the system software blocks mouse events every so often, making mouse cursor movement jerky and intermittent.
  • The keyboard misses keystrokes much more often than the apparently identical keyboard on my X21.
  • Sometimes when it goes into hibernation it takes a long time coming back, much longer than my X21.

So basically, what I have is a Thinkpad X21 with a swiveling touchscreen and a touchier keyboard. I know that the additional software features inevitably eat some cycles, but the X41 is fully twice as fast and has twice as much memory as the X21, and I would expect it to feel a lot snappier than it does. (I use the identical versions of all applications on both laptops.)

So overall, it's a cautious "recommended." As more software becomes available using the Tablet features, I will probably come to appreciate it more. I might not be as critical had I not used and loved the X21 for so long. (I still have it, and I don't think it's going anywhere anytime soon.) My main problems on this trip have stemmed not from limited compute power but from limited (or nonexistent) connectivity. Given the time I've been here, I'd say it's done more than well enough for something so small and so light.